The two sisters in this portrait, Dorothy and Elizabeth, were the eldest surviving daughters of Thomas, 1st Viscount Savage. It was once thought that the picture was painted around the time of Dorothy’s scandalous elopement in 1637, and that she was the sister seated at right, receiving the roses that were an attribute of her namesake, Saint Dorothy.
However, it has now been convincingly argued that the identity of the sisters should be reversed. A contemporary copy of the painting which descended through the Savage family bears inscriptions that identify Dorothy as the sister standing at left and Elizabeth as the seated sister on the right. Wearing a saffron-coloured gown – the colour then believed to have been worn by brides in antiquity – Elizabeth is the one who is the newlywed, receiving flowers from Cupid, the god of love.
Van Dyck was largely responsible for introducing the double or ‘friendship’ portrait to Britain. This picture, with its informal composition and quantities of shimmering silk, perfectly illustrates the appeal of Van Dyck’s style to British patrons.